LEARNING THE PIANO - DREAMS & INDIVIDUAL OPINIONS
Updated: Mar 4
After the just-past 21 months of piano lessons, I have arrived at the conclusion that there are no (or very, very few) "best practices" in the piano-learning and playing field.
That so surprises me. I was trained in law “way back when.” Law is a profession aligned with and reflecting a patriarchal model of “rights” and “wrongs” and “rules and regulations.” The law student in the west (based on Anglo vs. Roman law) learns where and how to find “the law” in statutes or case precedent, how to suss out the intent of the legislator or reasoning of the judge, how to gather and analyze facts regarding a specific case, and then how to apply the law to argue for and support this or that conclusion.
Very different is piano learning, where there do not appear to be many, if any, rules and regulations on which to rely! Their absence often leaves me feeling confused, lost, and questioning, a state as much due to my personality as to my legal training. I’ve noted that about myself in the past; I don’t much like improvising of any kind; I prefer to over-prepare, if anything. That brings me ultimate confidence, comfort, and pleasure.
Take tempo, for example.
Tempo is sometimes indicated in the score. It tells the pianist how fast to play a piece. Tempo is sometimes, but not always, written over the treble clef as beats per minute for a given note value. Sometimes in the past it was written in a word of the composer's home country, such as Italian ("presto" or "adante," which words inspired my poem below from Vol II of "Poetical Musings on Pianos, Music & Life" in production), or German. But when it is written in a number, the student sets the metronome at that beat per minute as indicated for that note value, or at some subdivision if one wants a bit more flexibility and less rigid drive forward in playing.
Andante or Lento?
I like andante. I relate. Life at my stage moves with all deliberate speed as appropriate to my age. All so good! I would continue, noting how fast the days of allegro go (not to mention vivacissimo), My first movement, now past. Nothing lasts. The lesson of tempo just about learned, more than an inkling staring me in the face (for any pace from grave to presto), what matters now is what I always said when embarking on dreams that I had: If lento...at least, I’m “Go!”
Rather than have my metronome click on each quarter note of a time signature in 3/4 such as for a waltz, I like it to click only on the first note of the bar. I feel that as a more leisurely pace where I can breathe within and between phrases or even bars, and thus, become a bit more expressive and lilting for the 3/4 waltz dance as I practice or play this style of musical piece.
When I recently asked my teacher what should be my goal tempo when I feel secure in playing a difficult section of a waltz by American composer Amy Beach, a piece that I was working on, they reminded me that it is only the music editor who indicates beats per minute on scores, and indicated that tempo is rather much an inconsequential construct. (Do they mean that only in reference to students at the beginning level?)
In past discussions the teacher has mentioned (1) style of music, (2) individual composer, (3) historical traditions,(4) limitations of the instrument or pianist, and (5) personal preference as among the factors that determine the “proper” tempo (if there even is such a thing to begin with).
Yet how can it be that editors of published scores engage in inconsequential actions by indicating a tempo?
The only guidance I could elicit from my teacher on my particular question regarding the Beach waltz, was a bottom line, namely, that I should likely set my metronome at 40 beats per minute per dotted quarter note, since the count on non-digital metronomes only goes down that low. Then I should work up tempo gradually. Still, he did not give me any “goal” tempo for my piece.
I’ve read that starting with slow practice, perhaps half the goal tempo then “working up gradually” means moving the metronome up two to three beats at a time until one is secure and comfortable in playing the difficult passage at that new tempo, then proceed accordingly. (Of course there is the diametrically opposed approach to learning a new piece, namely starting at the goal tempo, represented by percussionist Rob Knopper and trumpeteer Jason Sulliman) I’m at least grateful for a numerical guideline! But as to what ultimate tempo, I don't know. Of course, I've been advised, and I do consult YouTube videos of professional pianists play the piece I'm working on to get a clue about tempo, but I've also read not to listen initially when one is learning a piece, or certainly not to "imitate."
So where does that leave a questing student, and how do I deal with my discomfort in learning this new, strange, usually vague piano language? I’m still considering that question!
First, perhaps having few or no rules and regulations is just something to get used to, somewhat like learning a new alphabet and language like Greek. Yup! The piano is "Greek" to me! But it’s also more than or less than learning Greek. That’s because learning the piano does not offer at least the comfort of grammar "rules" one has in learning a new language. (And yes,I've made it through book one of "Living Language" in a pre-pandemic endeavor to learn Greek, since I intended to go there at the end of 2020, now set for some future date).
Second, I imagine that I must be content in lessons to just learn the alphabet of pianism, which is technique (including for me, rhythm, which at least can be reduced to counting and numbers!), and expect not much more. I don't yet know if musicality can be taught, but I know rhythm can be.
In addition, I should expect to learn techniques like how to bring out the melody line, how to smoothly play legato or non-jerky thirds (my latest challenge!), how to more comfortably and "faster" play trills and octaves, and the like. I should learn how to analyze structure of a piece and read and implement the composer’s notations regarding dynamics and slowing or speeding up tempo ("ritardando" and "accelerato" provide an even worse dilemma for anyone seeking certainty in tempo! I was just reduced to rotflmao when I googled musical terms in Italian for the words meaning "'faster," and found a list of no less than 28! I left it at that and did not search for additional German words).
All else in pianism seems to come down to just one's own opinion as to what “sounds right,” plus ability, art, and heart. My teacher insists that, after all is said and done, pianism is art and not science. I know I would appreciate a bit more of both!
In the end (at least for now at this stage of my lessons), heart seems to be of most importance. It is the one element in playing the piano that I can most easily grasp and express, and where I feel comfortable and with a bit of self confidence. Heart is what makes for musicality, another topic that fascinates me. Heart to me, at the very least means love of music, love of the instrument one plays, and love of playing for oneself or sharing ones music with friends or an audience. Heart is a mysterious matter and highly individual, but at least, "heart" is mine to define and express.
For the piano teacher I speculate that "heart" likely means wanting to share their own love of music, the particular instrument, style of music, or individual composer, by actively creating a future legacy in their students as the students move forward in ability and proficiency over time.
One or four or eight years from now, I wonder what my comfort level will be in defining and expressing “tempo” and the pianistic art form for myself? I was certainly comforted by the words of my composer friend, Bruce, when he said:
"I believe that in time all your concerns will sort themselves out. Think of it like
baking a cake. (LOL) You combine a bunch of disparate things, put them in an
oven and…miraculously after a certain time a cake appears! You are taking
in a great deal of information right now. I believe one morning you very well
may wake up and have an “Aha!” moment and everything will fall into place."
In the meantime, I resonate deeply to this lovely, poignant poem by Ranier Maria Rilke (translated by Edward Snow) for some of the above-expressed reasons! I like to imagine that my competence and credibility in pianism - and especially just knowing the "right" tempo -- is "just there..just kept hidden," and "could come tomorrow, this evening"!